Bridging The Gap: The Trouble With Natsukashii

After putting some long delayed finishing touches on a Fujiko Mine post, it occurred to me that there is a bit of a disconnect between what it means to overture towards an already established fanbase, and speaking clearly enough that new audiences can appreciate the same work. And while I don’t plan on laying out every concern in this post, there’s definitely much to consider. This is especially so when regarding filmed entertainment such as movies and anime. Of course, there is the “safe bet” of familiarity for those currently bereft of successful ideas. It has been something of a constant throughout visual popular culture that such a well be present at all times, no matter the prosperity level. Shelling out a new rendition of something that has worked before often makes for a logical “band-aid” solution, but rarely is any kind of long-term one. Heck, the Japanese have virtually created an industry on so-called “natsukashii” goods and services, created to fill the hearts and minds of so many with memories of simpler thoughts and or times. But a fundamental issue that crops up time and again regarding familiar worlds, characters, situations, and the like, is in how far can a retread of familiar retain the flavor of the past without seeming out of touch with contemporary themes and concerns.

This all came to mind after watching the final episodes of the latest Lupin III series, and how that handled the differences between what was considered acceptable then versus today. With a presentation that is already pretty bold by the medium’s standards, a lot of Fujiko Mine comes equipped with the promise of a daring new take on what is considered something of a cultural evergreen. This was something, that at least to a fan like myself, that felt appropriate in this period of insightful reimagining & re-examination. Just as 007 has gone through something of a thorough contemporization in recent years, going so far as to modernizing some of the original mythology while retaining much of Ian Fleming’s darker undertones. As expressed in my previous reviews of Fujiko, there is a discord evident early on between an intent to offer up a bleak, edgy tone, and wholesale reverence for earlier incarnations of the Lupin universe. (much of which was already pretty violent despite what Miyazaki would have us believe) And yet, this is a telling microcosm of what happens very often in the dialogue exchange from creators to consumers.

It’s no real secret as to why the familiar is such a popular go-to for media companies. Just think of it. Very few things work as well as something that has in fact worked before. When being torn between a potentially groundbreaking, experimental piece of art(or heck, even just a show with a novel idea), and a proven successful product, it’s easy to see why bean counters opt for the safe bet. In such economically trying times, it’s no wonder we see more familiarity on display than ever. It’s all part of the self-preservation machine going into hyper-mode. There are thousands of great ideas out there, they just aren’t seen as being worth the gamble. (Which also explains much of the medium’s samey nature. The safety card is never far away.) When we anime fans are inudated with so many new shows per year, it’s easy to see why producers would get cold feet after a number of their riskiest titles fail to gather a sizeable viewership. After all, there are products to sell, and that stuff piles up like the madness.

Products are also a major area in which many shows are greenlit over. It’s pretty much the central nervous system of the entire anime industry. When one cannot consider the marketing potential of a series, it becomes less and less probable that a show can be made of it. Which is why shows like Puella Magi Madoka Magika can exist; they straddle the line between the artistic and commercial just fine, and require little thought as to what kind of character products can be manufactured & sold en masse. So if a show’s characters cannot be immortalized in a dakimakura, figure, toy set, gachapon, etc. , you’re show may just never be more than a script in a file cabinet. To be fair, this has been common practice for decades. Just look at all the classic robot shows of the past, realistic, and not so. The wiggle room for risk has always been shifting and shrinking as the market determines.

So the safety net of the past has this stigma with all, but it does so quite significantly with the Japanese. “Natukashii”, as in nostalgic, colors a great deal of the general perspective. The same is true here in the west, with a few exceptions here and there. But the way these cycles tend to happen with anime, it often is so with an almost uncompromisingly forced manner that implies an almost militant need to not rock the boat, and to keep things as close to the original as possible. And while this can indeed be fun (Gundam Unicorn comes rushing to mind), it can also truly stunt creativity, and worse yet, not represent the current mindset of the original author of the work. But perhaps the most dispiriting symptom of such a need to “retain an original essence”, is disregarding the climate of the times, often running face first into social-political dissonance. When Bond first arrived on the scene, the other big global contender was Soviet Russia. Now over 40 years later, not only have political opponents changed dramatically, as have ones of gender, information, social mores, etc. Even in the realm of moving visual media, the world moves on..Even when a series such as Lupin takes place in a vague time period that hews close to the early-to-mid 1960s, the possibility of looking at the world from unexpected social angles makes for potentially compelling viewing.

Of course, this often faceplants into what one can consider to be the very thing producers and fans often mutually refuse to open themselves to; re-examination. If there is anything that is anathema to the foundation of those who cling so tight to the “way things were”, this is it. While many do take change in stride, there will always be a reactionary opposite that decries any major nuance against new artistic license. It’s pretty much an inevitable matter of course. And again, this applies to western fans of famous properties as well.

So when this inevitability seems so firmly in place, why offer up the promise of something new, only to renege on it at the last second? Granted, anything can happen throughout the course of production, and funding is definitely an issue. But when the seams of a work show due to a disagreement between staff members, or possibly even the changeup in the writing team, it can harbor ill for the project as a whole. And as a viewer that is open to a retro, or a progressive approach to old tales, it can be problematic to witness such a pulling of the parachute so late in the game.

If there was anything of value gained by studying stories/film/etc. it’s that a solid foundation in the scripting phase is crucial for the remainder of the work to come across seamlessly. Every good story requires a spine, a rubric to refer to, something that all departments can keep mindful of so that the end product is consistent. Without it, as it implies, offers up an amorphous alternative – which can only work as long as a few tenets remain. But more often than not, leads to something of a confused mess. If we don’t know which side of the bread, the author’s butter is on, how can we fully trust in the message they are delivering? Even in the name of a plot twist, it has to be in the name of some central thought in order for it to even partially work.

With this in mind, there are other issues that often come to the fray when thinking of the past, and the temptation to revisit it. There’s always the concern of updating in a manner unbecoming of the original. Also, the headaches that often come with making a new rendition with new minds in the production cycle. Nothing ever remains completely the same, and a such, comes the dilemma as to what degrees the staff are willing to do to identify their own work.(leaving a stamp will always be a driving force) And lastly (for now), the dichotomy between the production/artistic voice of the originals versus the present world. These are all viable challenges that inform, and often plague many a new series/film. But the final word comes from the most important quantity in the whole equation. Something that far more studios/marketing arms should keep mind in listening to. Its a relationship so many can no longer assume they understand.

The past can be a lovely place. But without immediacy, so much runs risk of becoming the stuff of our collective amnesia.

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